What Went Right: The Bullpen Makeover

Over the next week or so, we’ll again break down what went wrong and what went right for the 2009 Yankees. The series this year will be much more enjoyable than the last.

Phil Hughes, Al Aceves, and David Robertson

The Yankees came into 2009 feeling good about their bullpen. After all, the same cast of characters posted the seventh lowest ERA (3.79), second lowest FIP (3.82), second best strikeout rate (8.66 K/9), and tenth best walk rate (3.53 BB/9) in the league last year. Unfortunately, that group of relievers was unable to repeat that performance in the first month of this season. Their FIP in April was awful (5.41) and their ERA even worse (6.46), and it was a major reason why the team was in third place with a negative run differential on May 1st.

Thankfully, the Yanks had enough bullpen depth to not just replace one or two pieces, but to make wholesale changes. The first step in the makeover came on April 25th, when Phil Hughes was summoned from Triple-A to take over for the injured Chien-Ming Wang. Al Aceves replaced the overmatched Anthony Claggett on May 5th, and David Robertson took the place of the injured Brian Bruney three weeks later. Edwar Ramirez and his 33 baserunners allowed (6 homer!) in 17.1 IP was banished to the minors mid-May, and Jose Veras was mercifully designated for assignment a little later on.

After allowing three earned runs or less in five of his seven starts, Hughes shifted to the bullpen in early June to make way for Wang. He became the primary setup man to Mariano Rivera in short order, allowing everyone else in the bullpen to settle into roles more suitable for their skills. Hughes held opponents to a .172-.228-.228 batting line as a reliever, posting a ridiculous 65-13 K/BB ratio and an unfathomable 1.83 FIP after moving to the bullpen.

Aceves, meanwhile, became Joe Girardi‘s jack of all trades. He was used in long relief, short relief, in matchup situations, you name it. He allowed less than a baserunner per inning, and his 80.2 IP as a reliever was the most by a Yankee since Scott Proctor’s 100.2 IP back in 2006. Aceves effectively bridged the middle innings gap from the starter to Phil Hughes all by himself.

Most teams would be happy with a pair of guys like Hughes and Aceves in their bullpen, but the Yankees didn’t stop there. Rookie David Robertson developed from promising prospect into a bullpen force, leading all American League pitchers by striking out 12.98 batters per 9 IP (the second place guy, Joakim Soria, was more than a full strikeout behind him).

Once all of the new pieces were in place, the Yankee bullpen went from weakness in April to strength the rest of the way. They finished the year with a solid 3.91 ERA, and placed second in the league in strikeout rate (8.44 K/9) and third in walk rate (3.46 BB/9). The names had to be changed, but Girardi’s bullpen once again finished the season as one of the strongest in the game.

Photo Credits: Getty Images, Reuters Pictures, AP

The at-bat that sealed the game

For seven innings last night, CC Sabathia kept the Yankees in the game. After a rough first inning he settled down, hurt only by a pair of Chase Utley home runs. But, because he’d done such a good job of keeping the Phillies off the base paths, they were both solo home runs. Unfortunately, with Cliff Lee in his groove, it would take a serious offensive effort just to make up those two runs.

What the Yankees needed was for the bullpen to keep it a two-run game so that maybe, just maybe the offense could pull off a late-inning rally. That did not happen. Phil Hughes walked the first two batters he faced, and while Damaso Marte did his job, David Robertson failed to record the inning’s final out without allowing the Phillies to extend the lead.

His first opponent was Jayson Werth. With a righty on righty matchup, this is the guy the Yanks wanted to retire. Robertson started him with a fastball that ended up a bit low for ball one. To the fastball he went, and he missed three straight times for a four-pitch walk. But did he really miss? As pitchf/x records it, the second and third pitches of the at-bat were strikes. The second pitch was debatable, hanging up at the top of the zone, a place where umpires don’t always call strikes. But the third pitch was right there, a 93 mph fastball that came in a bit high, but certainly within the zone’s confines.

Robertson then missed badly for ball four, a fastball low, loading the bases for Raul Ibanez. Girardi could have gone to Phil Coke, but with three righties following Ibanez, and considering Robertson’s favorable splits against lefties, it was probably the right move to leave him in the game. Robertson then went to work, and he set up Ibanez nicely.

The first pitch he kissed the low, outside corner with a fastball for strike one. He then tossed another low fastball that missed the bottom of the zone to even the count. Keeping the ball low again, Robertson placed his third pitch, a 93 mph fastball, on the inside part of the plate for strike two. With Ibanez down in the count, he had to be prepared for the curveball, but Jorge and Robertson went back to the fastball, this one high and outside. It was a nice change of pace, and that’s going to get a swing and miss sometimes. Ibanez, though, managed to foul it off.

With the count still 1-2, and with Ibanez having seen four straight fastballs, Posada and Robertson went to the curve. It missed by a decent margin, though, evening the count at 2-2. I’m not sure if they were going for the swing and miss, or just poor contact, but again Posada called for the curveball and set up on the low outside corner.

Robertson delivered, and Ibanez bounced one through the hole on the right side for a two-run single that opened up the game for the Phillies. The pitch was supposed to stay away, but as you can see below, Posada had to move his glove towards the middle of the plate. That allowed Ibanez to get enough of his bat head on it to get it into the outfield.

Just how much of the plate did that curve get? The pitch sequence strike zone plot from Brooks Baseball shows us.

It was low and kind of away, but not where Robertson and Posada wanted it. It was still a decent pitch, but not a great pitch. Ibanez, a good hitter, did what he could with it. Cano, playing a bit to his right, had no shot.

Had Robertson placed that pitch just slightly further outside, perhaps Ibanez would have bounced it right to Cano. He might have even swung and missed. But, because the ball was towards the middle of the plate Ibanez could handle it, and while it wasn’t the difference in the game it certainly changed the tone. Instead of being down two with six outs remaining, the Yankees were down four with the bottom of their lineup due up in the eighth.

“A game of inches” is a cliche for a reason. Robertson had done a good job setting up Ibanez, but made a small mistake on one pitch and it ended up costing them big. It’s the nature of the game, and it happens to the best of them. Just ask CC Sabathia who, after throwing three good pitches to Chase Utley in the sixth, left a fastball right over the middle of the plate.

After all this, I can’t help but wonder how the game would have unfolded if Robertson got even one of those strike calls against Werth. If he’d retired him, our moods might be different right now.

Linkage: Robertson, Rosters, KLaw, Bunts

We have a few links to help you pass the time before the game tonight. The friggin’ rain better let up…

  • In Baseball Prospectus’ World Series preview, Will Carroll says that David Robertson‘s “shoulder would have him on a surgeon’s table if his team weren’t in the World Series.” Keep in mind that K-Rob missed time with an elbow injury in September, not shoulder. Also, shoulder injuries result in decreased velocity, and in his last outing Robertson sat 92.97-93.9 mph with the fastball, hitting the high end of that range on his final pitch of the day. Besides, I don’t think the Yankees would be foolish enough to carry an injured reliever on their World Series roster.
  • Joe took a look at how the core of the Yanks’ roster was constructed last week, but John Sickels did a more thorough job over the weekend. Sorry, Joe. Sickels also compared the Yanks roster construction with that of the Phillies’.  For a team that doesn’t produce any players, the Yanks sure do have a lot of homegrown players on their roster, no? Weird.
  • In case you missed it, here’s Keith Law’s keys to the World Series (Insider only). He picks the Yanks in six, because of “a big bullpen advantage and a stronger offense.”
  • Michael Lichtman at FanGraphs has a really long take on sacrifice bunts, particularly the ones the Yanks tried in the 8th inning the other day when the Angels botched some routine plays. RAB regulars know I’m not a fan of the sac bunt, but in that spot I was more than fine with it. They already had the lead; the bottom of the order was due up; and with Mo on the mound, one more run would have sealed the deal.
  • Here’s an Indians fan’s take on tonight’s CC Sabathia-Cliff Lee matchup. It’s long, but I’ll cut to the chase: He’s pissed.
  • Make sure you check out Visual Baseball. How can you not love baseball infographics?
  • Finally, Ben is still blogging about the Yankees for USA Today’s team face-off site. You can find the blog right here. In his most recent post, he presents the results from yesterday’s RAB World Series prediction poll. Check it out.

Rethinking Girardi’s ALCS bullpen approach

For 162 games this year, Joe Girardi had a fairly consistent bullpen approach. While the generally theory is to get the ball to Phil Hughes in the 8th and Mariano Rivera in the 9th, Joe had, through a series of mid-season auditions, figured out the best approach to the three or four outs in between the time when he removed his starting pitcher and when he brought in Hughes, and by the time early August rolled around, David Robertson had assumed the role.

Now, Robertson wasn’t given the role. He had to earn it. Early on in the season, Brian Bruney had that spot after losing the 8th to Phil Hughes, but Bruney couldn’t hold it down. After Bruney, the role was Alfredo Aceves‘ to lose, and after a shaky July brought about by some shoulder pain, Aceves lost it. It was then that David Robertson earned that position of trust, and he quickly emerged as the Yanks’ third best reliever.

On the season, Robertson had some pretty impressive numbers. He struck out 63 of the 191 batters he faced, good for a K/9 IP of 13.0. Although he walked 4.7 per 9 innings, by year’s end, he had reduced that walk rate. In the 7th, he was just as good. He faced 30 batters in the 7th inning — a small sample size for sure — but struck out 12 of them and allowed just two 7th inning runs. By most accounts, he was the Yanks’ third best reliever in 2009.

And then we have Joba Chamberlain. As we know, on the year, Joba was less than consistent and not as effective as we hoped. Sporting a lower velocity that many believe came about after his August 2008 shoulder injury and less control than we had seen in the past, Joba threw 157.1 to mixed results. He had a 4.75 ERA and a K/9 IP of just 7.6. His walk rate was up, and opponents hit .274/.363/.439 against him. By season’s end, no one really trusted him.

No one, that is, except Joe Girardi. When the playoffs rolled around, the Yanks announced that Joba would be in the bullpen, and we waited to see how Girardi would deploy Chamberlain. After watching the last few games, now we know: Joba Chamberlain will pitch before Phil Hughes in a spot customarily reserved for the team’s third best reliever.

Needless to say, Joba has disappointed. He has faced 12 batters this postseason and five of them have hits. His fastball still is topping out at around 95 and his control, as we saw yesterday, is non-existent. Robertson, meanwhile, has faced 14 batters this season and just two of them have hits. He has allowed two others to reach, but those were on intentional walks. He pitched out of a bases-loaded, no-out situation against the Twins in the ALDS and was invaluable against the Angels during the Game 2 marathon on Saturday night.

As Girardi has gotten too cute with his pitching changes, as, in the words of Mike, he makes the game of baseball look harder than it actually is, it’s time to go back to what worked. The Bridge to Mariano should remain David Robertson in the 7th — Phil Coke is a lefty pops up — and then Phil Hughes. That approach worked during the regular season and probably would have given the Yanks a 3-0 lead yesterday. Joba hasn’t earned anyone’s trust, and should not be pitching in key situations in a close ALCS.

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As a postscript to Girardi’s approach last night: I know a lot of fans have bought the excuse that David Robertson did not match up well with Howie Kendrick. (For instance, see this defense of Girardi.) He still managed to overmanage though. If Robertson doesn’t match up well with Kendrick, then have D-Rob walk Kendrick to face Jeff Mathis, a batter who cannot handle a fastball for his life. Instead, in a tie game on the road, Girardi burned his best available reliever after all of 11 pitches. If Mathis still hits that game-winning blast, then fine. At least the Yanks go down with their best on the mound and not their 7th pitcher in 4.1 innings.

Bruney, Robertson and a post-season bullpen

When the Yankees beat the Red Sox on Sunday, the story obviously focused around the AL East crown. After missing the playoffs last year and winning the Wild Card in 2007, the Yankees had reclaimed the division title for the first time since 2006.

There was, however, a bigger story in the game-within-the-game and one that could be potentially more important for the Yanks’ postseason chances than the inevitable clincher. With the Yanks up by a run and Andy Pettitte out of the game after six solid innings, Joe Girardi had to deviate from his usual game plan. Phil Hughes had just thrown in back-to-back games and was unavailable to pitch. David Robertson was not yet back from his elbow injury.

With the stadium holding its collective breath — and the woman sitting in front of me having some conniption fit — Girardi gave the ball to number 99 Brian Bruney. Coming into Sunday’s game, Bruney had a season to forget. Since returning from an injury in mid-June, Bruney had appeared in 31 games to bad results. He had allowed 52 baserunners in 26 innings, and opponents were hitting .302/.414/.528. After a stellar start to the season, Bruney had walked 20 and struck out 19 while generally stinking up the joint.

And so into the fire walked Bruney. He came out more than alive. Strike out, ground out, ground out went the Red Sox in the 7th. Pop out, fly out when Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis, two dangerous hitters, in the 8th. When Girardi came out to get Bruney, the much-maligned right-hander left to a standing ovation in the Bronx. The fans had put no faith in Bruney, and the Yanks’ reliever delivered.

His stuff on Sunday was better than it had been in a long time. Thanks in part to a wide strike out and Jose Molina’s pitch framing, Bruney threw 14 of his 21 pitches for strikes. He was throwing his fastball at 94.55 mph and peaked at 96.8. It was vintage Brian Bruney.

After the game, he was emotional in talking about the crowd response. “The thing that was special for me was the crowd reaction,” he said in the clubhouse amidst champagne.”I’ve been through a lot all year, fighting a lot of injuries and mechanics and pitching like garbage. It’s special. The ovation I got, for me, meant a lot. Everybody here was counting on me and everybody here let me know they appreciated it. I would have loved to look up and give a ‘thank you,’ but honestly, I had tears in my eyes and I couldn’t do it.”

For much of the season, my dad has speculated that Bruney has been more injured than he is letting on, and this comment seems to hint that perhaps his throwing arm has not been 100 percent. While I hate to read too much into 1.2 innings, Sunday’s outing could be the start of a solid run for Bruney. He threw with confidence and made his pitches.

Meanwhile, David Robertston will take the mound for the Yankees tonight. After missing much of September with a sore elbow, the Yanks’ strike out artist will resume his role in the bullpen, and all systems are go for Robertson. In effect, then, the Yankees could be gaining two bullpen arms right when they need them the most. As Tyler Kepner reports today, the Yankees will look at Bruney, Robertson, Chad Gaudin and Damaso Marte for two bullpen spots in the first round.

If Bruney can restore some confidence, if Robertson can pitch and stay healthy, the Yanks will have the ability to reduce their playoff games to six-inning affairs. Gaudin, a versatile starter/long-reliever and Marte, a lefty specialists, have their upsides for other reasons, but I would lean toward a healthy Robertson and Bruney. With their offense and their starting pitchers, shortening games could very well lead to more than a few October W’s, and in the short best-of-five first round, those victories are both rare and important.

Cashman: No Robertson for Red Sox weekend

While Yankee fans would love to have David Robertson ready to go for the 7th inning against the Red Sox this weekend, the Yankees, with their eyes on an October prize, say their key middle reliever will not be back until next week. Mike Puma of The Post spoke with Brian Cashman after Robertson threw off the mound yesterday, and the Yanks’ GM said that the plan is to have Robertson throw another mound session on Saturday and get him into games against Kansas City and Tampa. According to Puma, barring a “physical setback,” Robertson will be ready to go for the ALDS. “If he’s healthy, he is one of our better guys,” Cashman said. Indeed.

Robertson aims for weekend return

While the Yankees are getting Andy Pettitte back from his stint of extended rest tonight, another injured pitcher plans to make his return this weekend. David Robertson threw for the third time in six days prior to the Yanks’ Sunday game and says he felt great. Joe Girardi too was impressed with the progress his key middle reliever has made. Robertson will throw from a mound on Tuesday or Wednesday and hopes to pitch in a game this weekend against Boston. If Robertson is healthy, the Yanks’ pen will be fearsome indeed come the playoffs.

Meanwhile, because it’s come up via a few e-mails and off-topic comments, the Yankees will throw CC Sabathia, Joba Chamberlain and Andy Pettitte against the Red Sox this weekend. I believe the Sox will counter with Dice-K, Tim Wakefield and Josh Beckett.